CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH
A study in Jude 1-3
K. W. H. Howard
Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called: Mercy unto you, and peace and love be multiplied.
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.
Contending for the faith was evidently necessary in the days of the Apostles. They did it themselves and they called on all the people of God to do the same. “Jude … to them that are sanctified . . . Beloved . . . contend for the faith . . . “!
The precept has had its relevance in every period of the church’s long history. In the dark ages, minority groups such as the Waldenses and the Lollards contended for the faith at a time when the lamp of truth appeared to be all but extinguished under the superstition of Rome. One of the distinguishing marks of our Protestant Reformers is that they not only held the faith in its purity and in the integrity of their own hearts, but they also earnestly contended for it against all comers. One may hold the faith once delivered notionally and without feeling the power of it;
one may also know the truth and feel its power without contending for it at all. But true religion is not only “more than notion”; it is more than experience; it is religion that proclaims and practises what it has both “known and felt”.
Holy Scripture is written for our learning, and if the signs of the times in which we find ourselves today are read aright, it becomes clear that it is a matter of vital necessity for God’s people today to contend for the faith. “Beloved … it was needful”. Do you rejoice in the common salvation of which Jude speaks? Has sovereign grace put you into that common and yet most select number of saved sinners who comprise the church of the living God? Then here is your charge and your warrant to contend for the faith by which alone you are saved: “Jude … to them that are sanctified . . . Beloved . . . contend for the faith.”
Our world is in a mess. What calls itself the Christian Church in this world is equally muddled on almost every point both of doctrine and practice. Yet nothing is so relevant to the modern world and to the current situation as the Bible and its message. Men ignore it. They go the way of pleasure. They trust human wisdom; indeed they prefer human folly rather than the wisdom of God given in His Word, a wisdom by which all problems find their ultimate solution.
What, then, is the message of the Bible? – the message in the interest of which this contending is to be undertaken? What is it that makes this message relevant in every age and generation? I
shall return answer to these questions by way of asserting and expounding a number of propositions implicit in these three verses. These are principles which are absolutely central and crucial to the Christian testimony whether in life, or witness, or preaching.
The message of the Bible comprises a body of absolute truth -absolute dogma – infallible doctrine. Jude calls it the faith. You may lay stress on the word faith, here used not in its experiential but in its objective sense, and speak of the Faith. Or you may stress the definite article, and speak of the faith, indicating a body of truth distinct and different from all other professions of truth. Each emphasis is valid, and both are implicit here.
The message of the Bible comprises the faith, that is, the assembling together in one place and in written form of all the ultimate facts of being, and all the essential truth concerning them, together with the reasons for these facts. This is the faith. Here are the absolutes: about God and about man; about life and about death; about sin and about salvation. Here also are the absolutes in terms of ethical and moral and practical values: in terms of right and wrong. This is what the message of the Bible is about; so this is what the contending is to be about.
There is, alas, gross misunderstanding of the Bible’s message in our day. In one sense there is nothing new about that. As in the days of the Reformers, so now. Rome misunderstood the Bible then; she misunderstands the Bible now. What is sadly new, is the fact that the Protestantism which came into being on the basis of the essential message of the Bible, has turned its back on the rock whence she was hewn and deliberately misunderstands the Bible in the ecumenical interest. Some say the Bible is just a book of history, but as such it has no more than antiquarian value, and therefore you cannot even begin to talk about its relevance to modern life and to man in his twentieth century context and need. Others will say: yes, the Bible is history, but the trouble is you cannot trust the history, so you should draw from it just its ‘religious values’, its aesthetic ideas; they will necessarily be vague and unspecific, but that does not matter! But this is not what the Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ say. They say that the message of the Bible is the faith; there is truth, there is teaching, there is a clear and positive message in this Book. It is a teaching about God who began the universe; about God’s great plan and purpose in His universe; about what God has done for the world at large; and about what God has done in His only-begotten Son and by His Holy Spirit for His Church in particular. Nothing is traceable to chance or to fate; everything is traceable to the hand of Almighty God. He is conducting and ordering His universe by His power to those ends for which He first created it; and that, in the last analysis, means that it is a vast stage upon which He fulfils the incomparable drama of redemption and so creates and completes His Church. This is what the message of the Bible is all about. This
is what God has decreed and determined. This is what He is steadily accomplishing by His sovereign Spirit through every joy and sorrow, every success and failure, every triumph and every tragedy of the entire history of the world and of humanity within it. Through good and through ill, in the end of the day the Holy Spirit of God will finish His work of regeneration, the Son of God will “see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied”, and God the Father will observe that all is “to the praise of the glory of His grace”. Such is the message of this Book construed in terms of doctrine, of experience, and of history. This is what existence and being is all about; why we are here, and where we are going. No understanding of the meaning of things is so nobly conceived as this, nor so unfrustrably executed, nor so expressive of the incomparably splendid majesty and glory of the one living and true God, its author and finisher.
Of necessity, therefore, every man that exists or ever did exist;
and every man that ever will be born, falls within Almighty God’s great and universal plan and purpose. It may be for his good, it may be for his ill; but just as no man can contract out of the world into which he is born, so neither can he contract out of the Divine control that governs that world from beginning to end. Hence there is no such thing as a man to whom the message of this Book -the Bible – is irrelevant. The man who thinks he is so modern, so educated, so sophisticated, so troubled by “modern” problems that he thinks never existed before and that the message of the Bible is therefore not for him – that man is blinded by ‘the god of this world’. No man exists who does not fall within the compass, the scope, the orbit, of that with which the message of this Book deals. The faith.
The contending is to be about the faith. And the faith, the message of this Book, is perfectly clear. It is not just a sentiment, a feeling; it is a message that can be stated and defined and taught. I do not say that a finite man can understand the infinite things about this message. I do say that as the Lord Jesus Christ taught the faith, so also did the prophets and the apostles; and so also must the church “which is the pillar and ground of the truth” in each new generation. “Beloved”, says Jude, “it was needful . . . that ye should earnestly contend for the faith.” Now, you cannot contend for what you cannot define. You must be able to say whether a propositon is true or false before you can contend either for it or against it. And that means, with regard to the message of this Book, that you must be able to say whether God is sovereign or not; whether man is sinful or not; whether there is salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ or not; whether men are able to repent and believe the Gospel by their own effort, or not; and whether when God sent His only-begotten Son into the world He did so to make salvation available subject to the whim and wish of men, or to make it actual and effectual by His Holy Spirit. Definition is of the essence of revelation; dogma is the backbone of the Gospel, and it is impossible to “contend for the faith” without knowing what the faith is. If you cannot define it, you cannot defend it!
Christianity is indeed supernatural in its origins, in its methods, and in its ultimate ends. I do not say that you can rationalize the supernatural. I do say that the faith is revealed religion. God has spoken, and spoken plainly, in the inscripturated Word, and in His incarnate Son the living Word, and by the operation of the Holy Spirit in men’s lives. The faith that saves sinners is therefore definable, it may be clearly stated, and that upon divine authority. This is a principle that must be grasped today in answer to those in many quarters whose argument is that religious experience is so high and so wonderful that you can only regard it aesthetically and introspectively; that you can feel it but not state it; that you may know it but not say what it is and what it is not. If that is your religion you cannot comply with the precept to ‘contend for the faith’ because you are not in the position to say what it is!
Contend!. This is what the Apostles, the martyrs, and the early Christians did against the classical heresies and heretics of the early centuries. This is what the Reformers did against the distortion of the faith by Rome. And such contending was possible only because the distinction between truth and error, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, could be drawn and was in fact constantly drawn. Indeed, historically considered, the rising of heresy served the cause of truth in that it compelled the Church to “examine the Scriptures whether these things be so”; a more comfortable age alas, bred indifference and led to the higher criticism.
We need such contending today, possibly even more urgently than ever before. Take the whole spectrum of professed Christendom into account, and you find greater confusion today than there ever was, as to what precisely authentic, orthodox, historic, and biblical Christianity really is! If the Apostle should say “Perilous times shall come”, anyone who reads the signs of our times will have to say: Perilous times have come! In these times foggy preaching and woolly religion are worse than useless and utterly dishonouring to Almighty God. Only clarity with respect to the faith, conviction with respect to its effective power, and a burning sense of commission can put into effect this solemn precept – “Contend for the faith”. The faith is a body of absolute truth revealed by the only living and true God, written in Holy Scripture, and authenticated by the Holy Spirit in the God-given experience of men.
The second proposition I draw from these verses is that the message of the Bible is a body of truth which has been “delivered” and therefore received. This is what Jude says. It is something that has been handed over, transferred from One to another; and in this case it is delivered not to mankind at large but to the Church. The Bible, as we have already seen, has relevance to all men universally; but the faith has not been placed in the custodianship of mankind at large. The faith has been “delivered unto the saints” – to the Church; which is why the Apostle Paul describes the Church as “the pillar and ground of the truth”.
The importance of this second proposition lies in the fact that saints are sinners to begin with. Hence, any thought that they, sinners saved by grace and constituted the Church, should have created the faith and written the Bible (which is virtually the view of the church of Rome) is at once discounted. If the Bible is written by sinners it is as sinners are, and utterly untrustworthy;
but that hypothesis is altogether precluded by God’s well-considered and deliberate “delivery” of the faith to the Church. So this Book is not a collection of men’s ideas and thoughts on religion; it is what God Himself says, and it was written by His finger. Moses, therefore, did not invent the Law, and the Apostles did not invent the Gospel. The prophets had to say constantly, “the word of the Lord came unto me”, and the apostle said, “I delivered unto you, that which also I received of the Lord.”
In this way the faith has been “delivered unto” the Church; the Church did not create it. Its integrity and its authority derive altogether from its Author; and this is what takes away any hesitancy about contending for it. Because the faith has been “received of the Lord” and not invented by men, there can be no lurking fear that it might prove in the end of the day to be wrong, or somehow insufficient for modern man. Because God has “delivered” to His Church what He alone has conceived, created, executed, and applied, all who are called to “contend for the faith” are answerable to God and not to man, and here alone is deliverance from “the fear of man which gendereth to bondage”. Said the contending Apostles to their captors: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
“Beloved … it was needful. . . that ye should earnestly contend for the faith . . . delivered unto the saints.” – Not the faith thought-up by the saints, nor the faith contrived by the saints; nor some father-figure religion psychologically induced! No! “The faith delivered unto” and therefore received and embraced by “the saints”. Contending for the faith therefore becomes God’s people, lest they be found unfaithful stewards of the mysteries of God. “It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful”. (1 Cor. 4.2).
The third proposition which I draw from these verses is that the message of this Book, the faith, is a body of truth which is complete.
It is unchangeable and final. It is “once delivered to the saints”. It is the very last word; neither subtraction nor addition is possible nor admissible. Once here, means quite literally “once for all”, a completed action. It means nothing at all in terms of continuing delivery, continuous revelation, and therefore continual improvement of the message. No, the faith is once and for ever delivered.
Here lies the answer to the man who says: but surely with all our
modern knowledge and information, you don’t expect us to understand the message of this Book; the simple fact that it is so old makes it out of date! This is a common objection, and it is met by the fact that because the faith is a message from the eternal God, it is above time. It is not affected by the altering fashions of time, nor by the changing circumstances and environment of life in the world. Because the faith comes from One who is above time, it took account of all those changes before ever they came to pass. Consequently God’s perfect knowledge of men and their problems in every generation has already been applied to this message before ever it was handed over to the Church, and in perfect readiness for the scene in which it is to operate. Out of date it can never be! For it comes from One who stood at the end of the age with every issue of history before His view, and all the events of history leading up thereto. Nothing, on earth or in heaven can make this body of absolute truth out of date. It is impossible! Nothing calls for any supplement to it. It is delivered once; and once and for all it explains all that the Divine mind has decreed shall be explained to man in his temporal state.
The fundamental reason why men today think the Bible and its message is out of date is because their spiritually unenlightened minds misconceive their own worst problem and enemy. The natural man thinks that his worst enemy is nuclear power, or this or the other political ideology, or money or the lack of it. The one thing he does not see is that the standing problem of humanity is man’s estrangement from his Maker, and that out of that ruptured relationship every other problem flows. It is with this ultimate and crucial problem that the faith deals. It declares what God has done about it, both in His eternal covenant and in the historic fulfilment of His covenant. All the great events arising from the incarnation of the Son of God are done once and for all. Christ came down from the bosom of the Father once only. He died on Calvary’s cross a sacrifice for the sins of many once and for all, an unrepeatable sacrifice. He rose from the dead, vindicated both in His person and His work by God the Father, and is set down at the right hand of the majesty on high, once only, and once for ever. And again, once in the end of time He will return to judge the world in righteousness, and to reign in eternal blessedness and glory.
These, in the Eternal mind, and in time and history are all completed acts of Almighty God, and each is final, and together they comprise the substance of “the common salvation”. It is finished in God’s eternal decree; it is finished in the work of God’s blessed Son; and it is once and for ever delivered to the Church on earth, to hold, to know experientially, and to contend for in the world. For it is under such ‘faithful contendings’ that the Holy Spirit is pleased to save all who repent and believe the gospel.
“Beloved.. .it was needful.. .that ye should contend”. Contenders must recognize that what they are contending for is not something uncertain, flexible, incomplete, capable of
improvement; something contingent upon the circumstances of the times, or the permissions of sinful men. No! Blessed be God; it is finished; and it is delivered once and for ever.
The fourth and final proposition I draw from these verses is that contending for the faith is to be conducted in a certain spirit, manner and disposition. How easy it is to do the right thing in the wrong way and belittle what you are doing by the way you do it. “Beloved.. .ye should earnestly contend…” That is by no means the same thing as inculcating a contentious spirit, a fault-finding, quarrelsome mentality which becomes neither the faith nor him that contends. “Earnestly contend…” tells us, I submit, two basic things about the way and the manner of this contending.
First, you must be in earnest about this work and witness, because the faith has so much opposition. This contending is not a game but a war; it is not a pastime but a serious and continuing engagement. “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and turning back is fit…” Thus the Apostles viewed it: “Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” Â— that is normality in the service of the Gospel.
The contending has to be in earnest because of the wiles of the devil, and of the many principalities and powers by which he effects his opposition. Their name is legion Â— Romanism, Ecumenism, Modernism, Pentecostalism, Satanism, and the rest. Both the scale and the intensity of the opposition demands earnestness of spirit in contending for the faith.
The second thing we are here told is that a man contends best for what he feels most deeply. “Earnestly contend”. What are the things that arouse your deepest feelings? Your bank balance? Your good name in society? Your station and rank? Having your own way in things? Or are you moved more than anything else by the ineffable wonder and glory of the Gospel Â— the faith once delivered? In other words, where is your treasure? For the location of a man’s treasure is the location of his heart; and nothing moves his heart like his treasure!
Now Jude credits those who will contend for the faith with being able to say with an unaffected sincerity: My treasure is Christ; my treasure is in the faith once delivered; nothing moves me as Christ moves me; nothing lays hold of my soul as He does! So then this is not an academic disputation, nor is it a matter of winning arguments and scoring points. It is not a matter of cleverness in the head. It is a matter of the love of God in the Lord Jesus Christ laying hold of a man’s heart, mind and will; showing him God’s glory in Christ’s face, Christ’s loveliness against his own sin, and everlasting mercy that makes him a “son of God and joint-heir with Jesus Christ”. When a man feels like that about Jesus Christ, he will “earnestly contend”; nothing will stop him, nor will he be able to stop himself, nor will he want to give up while God gives him strength.
This is what lies behind the Apostles and their faithful and earnest contendings. All arose from a felt Christ. It is thus not without deep reason that Jude describes those to whom he addresses this word of exhortation, as those who are “sanctified” by an eternal separation to God, “preserved” by a free redemption in Christ Jesus, and “called” with an effectual calling by the Holy Spirit of God.
“Beloved ………. Contend!”